To celebrate Plastics News' 20th anniversary in 2009, we continue with our weekly countdown of the Top 20 issues of lasting impact, as reported in our pages.
The series will end with the No. 1 issue in our 20th Anniversary special edition March 16.
No. 7: Sustainability and biodegradable plastics
Reduce the amount of plastic packaging. Recycle more, landfill less. Enact a national deposit on containers. Which is more environmentally friendly paper or plastic?
Companies announce that they are making plastics from starch and plants. Debaters argue over what is ``sustainable'' and what is ``biodegradable,'' and some say more research is needed to determine the best environmental option.
Unfortunately, today's discussion about sustainability in the plastics industry contains only slight differences and nowhere near as much progress as one might have expected two decades after the hot topics emerged.
But there have been some subtle changes to the issues of sustainability and biodegradability as well as encouraging signs of advancement.
* For starters, there's more public awareness, fueled by an organized environmental movement that effectively uses the Internet to spread its message. What's more, fueled by energy supply concerns, climate change/ greenhouse gas issues and anti-litter campaigns, it is likely that sustainability has moved front and center for good.
``If you thought sustainability was going to diminish, that is not going to be the case. It is going to continue,'' said Bill Carteaux, chairman and chief executive officer of the Washington-based Society of the Plastics Industry Inc., one of the speakers at a recent conference in the city.
* Second, there is the leverage of Wal-Mart Stores Inc., the world's biggest retailer, which in 2006 launched its sustainability scoreboard. That forced supplier companies to reduce the size of their packaging and spurred an increasing number of firms to develop more biodegradable packaging options.
* Third, the turbulence in petroleum markets during the past two years has prompted manufacturers to re-examine their manufacturing processes to find ways to use less material and produce less waste. It also has prompted many manufacturers most notably in the automotive, electronics and packaging end markets to launch initiatives to develop alternatives to petroleum.
``We have to look at our products differently now,'' said Amanda Holder, a sustainable packaging development engineer at Berry Plastics Corp. of Evansville, Ind. ``We have learned that sustainability isn't just about the materials used, but about the energy used and the waste materials generated.''
Still, many of the same questions from 20 years ago remain unanswered: What is the environmentally best product and will customers refuse to buy it unless it is price-competitive?
The current discussion over what is more environmentally friendly is just as emotionally charged and not much clearer than it was in 1989. But the debate is now couched more in terms of the overall environmental impact of a product during its life cycle, not just what happens to it after it is used. In addition, the question of whether plastic packaging is sustainable is further complicated by whether a specific material actually has a recycling stream or is recycled.
Corn-based plastic products also are under scrutiny because many of them will only break down in industrial compost facilities, which are limited in the United States, and because cornstarch- and plant-based packages generally look like their petroleum counterparts, creating a potential recovery problem for reclaimers.
The issue also remains complicated by pricing issues.
``[Consumers] won't pay more for green unless you can show more value,'' said Scott Case, vice president of TerraChoice Environmental Marketing Inc. in Reading, Pa.
Pete Grande, chief executive officer of Command Packaging in Mount Vernon, Calif., agreed, noting that companies eager for environmentally friendly packaging also ``want to see some savings.''